On This Day In History 27th April 1996 - Battle In Bolton
Monday, 27th Apr 2020 09:41
They say that 1999 was our Great Escape season, but I would suggest that 1995/96 was a season when it truly went right to the wire and the trip to Bolton Wanderers was as tense as any game in the great escape season.
1998/99 season was called the Great Escape because we spent virtually all season in the bottom three before pulling out by winning the last three games, but the final game was not as tight or tense as it was back in 1996.
Back then we had hovered above the bottom three all season in Dave Merrington's only year as manager, but we had only dropped into it once since October, we just seemed to be able to win the odd game here and there to keep us out but not pull us clear.
So with two games to go we were one of three clubs on 34 points, Manchester City were 18th and 3rd from bottom on that number and Coventry City sat between us.
Queens Park Rangers were just about dead and buried on 30 points and Bolton our opponents on this day on 29 would go down if they failed to beat us.
The season had an extra edge to it, Alan Ball had left the Dell the previous summer to take on the job of managing Manchester City, the way it happened had left a real sour taste in the mouth of Saints supporters and although Ball now is revered for his time as both a player and manager at Saints and quite rightly so , in this season and for a few after he was hated as much as anyone else by Saints supporters and branded a Judas.
So we travelled up to Burnden Park for the closing home game of it's penultimate season.
It had once been one of the biggest grounds in the country, it had held 70,000 and hosted an FA Cup final replay and also suffered a disaster when in 1946 with the gates of the ground having been broken down , fans poured in through the smashed gates and over the walls and an estimated 85,000 in the ground, some 15,000 over capacity were inside for kick off.
Inevitably a barrier broke in the Railway End and in the crush 33 people died and over 400 were injured.
Bizarrely the game was only temporarily halted, the dead were covered in coats and laid along the touchline and the game was restarted with them still laying alongside the pitch.
Perhaps with World War 2 only having been over 6 months, people took death a lot differently at that time.
Fast forward 51 years to 1998 and we were in the Railway End for this vital relegation battle, there had been a few changes to the ground since, but not many, the part of the Railway End were the disaster had happened had a supermarket built over it, so one half had the brick wall of the store next to the pitch and we occupied the other half of the terrace, which was still standing.
The rest of the ground was still identical to 1946 save that come parts of it had been seated and the capacity was now around 25,000, on this day 18,795 were there including around 2,500 Saints supporters.
I always found Bolton like many of the so called Mill towns in Lancashire to be very parochial and unwelcoming and this was one of these days, Saints supporters had been advised that there were no real away pubs and those that were near the ground let in home fans only, so that if they wanted a drink they should stop out of town and drive in shortly before kick off, behind the Railway End there was also a big away car park for coaches and cars, it was quite clear they did not want outsiders in their town, if they had to let you in then you drove to this secure compound and then were escorted out.
We played in our yellow and blue striped away kit and on a sunny day the game as expected started in a tense and nervous fashion, but the deadlock was broken on 25 minutes when a defensive error let in Mathew Le Tissier who accelerated to capitalise and chip the ball into the net almost nonchantly.
This gave us the upper hand, we were not prolific goalscorers this season, indeed Le God after scoring an opening day hat trick would score only once in the Premier League in the following six months, however he had come good when it mattered and this was his 3rd goal in 5 games.
But if we didn't score many then we didn't concede many either, we were the 11th best defence in the division come the end of the season letting in only 52 goals, the trouble was we only scored 34.
But we usually knew how to defend a lead, we either collapsed or dug in and on this day it was the latter.
I can't remember the game having too many more chances although I do recall a nervy ending but that was more about what could happen and not what was actually occurring on the pitch.
The celebrations at the end were that of a cup winning side and it soon became clear that we needed this win, both Coventry and Manchester City had both won away QPR had won as well, but for the London club it was too little too late and they were now relegated as were Bolton.
It was now all on the last day with three clubs on identical points fighting to stay out of the last relegation place, for Saints it would be clear what was needed equal what Manchester City do and we stay up on goal difference.
Back in Lancashire and the locals were not taking kindly to relegation, we were locked in the car park but the home fans departing behind us on the old railway bank threw an assortment of missiles, some of which were returned, but with a heavy police presence in the compound those that did so risked arrest and the Police were not much friendlier than the Bolton fans.
We were driven out of the town under police escort and the celebrations continued long into the night, but we all knew 8 days later and we would face the real test and it would be a day far closer and far tenser than anything that the Great Escape season would have three years later.
Photo: Action Images
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When Saturday Comes #36 by wessex_exile
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When Saturday Comes #35 by wessex_exile
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When Saturday Comes #34 by wessex_exile
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When Saturday Comes #33 by wessex_exile
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